We’ve been following Alfred Crosby as he tracks the gradual shift toward quantitative thinking during the late Middle Ages. But, says Crosby, what struck the match that set Western culture ablaze was an enhanced and generalized sense of the visual. Consider literacy. Traditionally the main organ for receiving knowledge was the ear. People didn’t read; they listened to oral recitations of Scripture or epics or tales. Writing was speech on a page, so people typically read aloud — scriptoria and libraries were noisy places in the Middle Ages. There were no separations between words and no punctuation, so it was easier to understand the text by ear than by sight. St. Augustine marveled that when his mentor, St. Anselm, read, his eyes scanned the page, and his heart, explored the meaning, but his voice was silent and his tongue was still. Augustine speculated that Anselm was saving his voice for public recitations.
It was probably the sheer volume of texts flooding into Europe that stimulated 13th century scholars to read more quickly, silently, by sight rather than by ear. Copyists began making texts easier on the eye. Reading, which had been a kind of public performance, became an individual private act — and a potentially heretical one, as the Reformation would soon demonstrate.
We’ll continue following Crosby as he illustrates how the shift to visualization transformed other aspects of Western culture.